Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Essay Question Formats

I've noticed that students at the introductory level seem to have a greater tendency to fail to address one element of a multi-part essay question (usually the last part of the question). For example, I often ask them to evaluate an argument, or give and briefly defend their own view on a subject. Before the first exam I emphasize that they need to address all aspects of a question, and even if they aren't sure what they think, that they should nevertheless write something down for partial credit. Still, many fail to do so.  I've recently noticed a difference in terms of how much this occurs, based on how I format the question.

For example, I had a significant number of students neglect to answer the last part of the following question on a recent introductory ethics exam:
Explan two of the ways that military training morally harms soldiers, according to Francis Trivigno in his chapter "A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism." Briefly explain one objection to his view.
With respect to the following question, there was only one case of a student ignoring the last question:
From the chapter by Stan van Hooft, "Sex, Temperance, and Virtue":
  • Describe the distinct virtue he believes is important in the sexual realm of life that is overlooked by those who focus on temperance.
  • Second, which philosophical account of sex does his view reflect, and why?
  • Finally, do you think his view is correct? Briefly explain.
My working hypothesis is that they are used to having information, including questions, presented to them in bullet-point style, and so they are more likely to miss a part of the question when it is not formatted in this way. I am curious if anyone else has thoughts about this issue or their own anecdotal evidence for or against my working hypothesis. If the second format is clearer to my students, then in my context it strikes me that I should present the question in a manner that they are more likely to attend to in full.


  1. It might be the bullets, but what really stands out to me is the addition of metadiscourse like 'second' and 'finally.' Or maybe it is the combination of the two that really catches their attention.

    1. From my experience, it's the bullets. Otherwise they read the beginning of the question and promptly stop "listening" to the question.

    2. i think so. like "second" right?

  2. Yeah, this is frustrating. Many of my students take a "tell me everything you know about the topic" approach. No matter the specific question(s) I ask them to address about X, they invariably tell me everything they think they know about X, irrespective of whether that answers the specific question(s) posed.

    My suspicion is that there's a lot going on in the background here. For one, they're not accustomed to the notion that knowledge comes in multiple forms. They know of one kind of knowledge, a propositional sort. So in philosophy, you display that form of knowledge by telling me that Mill said X, his critics say X, etc. But they're unaccustomed to displaying the sort of knowledge that comes from analysis and evaluation — a long way of saying they live at the lower rungs of Bloom's taxonomy. More generally, I think it reflects an immaturity as writers -- an inabiltiy to take a given body of information and put it to use for diverse rhetorical purposes.

  3. It's the bullets. Not everyone can readily follow complex elaborations or will always be ready to do so -- even if they can when attending to that. Bullets make it easier both stylistically and informationally. Why not aim for maximum clarity, to hit even those students not ready or, at least, not yet ready to pay adequate attention? Remove the excuse to disregard, whether unconscious or deliberate, and the result is generally going to be better.

  4. My experience is that bullets, metadiscourse (first, second, ...) or bullets plus metadiscourse have roughly the same (positive) effect.

  5. I do this kind of "outlining for them" technique in the first essay assignment. I find that even then, several students leave portions unanswered. That's because they don't have an answer: they didn't understand the material and discussion well enough to write about it cogently and they are actually taking a pretty honest way out: not talking about it at all.

    Other students (the ones that tend to be very careful and compliant) take it as a checklist and fail to draw the connections between the bullet points that would be exemplified by the non-bullet-pointed way of putting the question: they take it as a check list and don't see you as encouraging them to present an extended line of thinking.

    As someone who has used this method, I'm beginning to think that it ill-serves most students. It ill-serves students who are failing to grasp the material and discussion at a basic level (because it pre-digests the content into chunks) and it ill-serves the students who have a good grasp on the material and discussion because it encourages them to follow a recipe that both constrains their approach and invites them to see the exercise as a checklist.

    I'm glad you brought this up because my latest writing assignment is turning out just this way...

    1. Becko,
      Interesting points, I've had the same experience with the bullets sometimes. They don't see or make the connections, it ends up being 3 short answer questions rather than one long integrated essay. I suppose the best solution may be to do some of the exercises suggested by Michael's recent post, "Learning by Writing the Question":

  6. A simple solution: ask the question in a general way and specify the answer must COVER each of the bullet points.


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